The Origin of Dimpled Chads – Patrick Wohl (Down Ballot)

Eric Wilson
February 21, 2024
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The Origin of Dimpled Chads – Patrick Wohl (Down Ballot)
February 21, 2024

The Origin of Dimpled Chads – Patrick Wohl (Down Ballot)

"The next time someone tells you local politics is uninteresting or inconsequential you can point them to this case."

Our guest is Patrick Wohl, author of the new book Down Ballot: How A Local Campaign Became a national referendum on abortion. Patrick is a Washington, DC-based public affairs professional and also has extensive experience on the campaign trail up and down the ballot.

In our conversation, we discuss the small race that became a big deal, the long-term impact of the outcome, and we even dig into the book publishing industry.

Episode Transcript

Eric Wilson (00:06.651)
I'm Eric Wilson, managing partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Our guest today is Patrick Wohl, author of the new book, Down Ballot, How a Local Campaign Became a National Referendum on Abortion. Patrick is a Washington, D.C. based public affairs professional.

and also has extensive experience on the campaign trail up and down the ballot. In our conversation today, we discussed the small race that became a big deal, the long-term impact of that outcome, and we even dig into the book publishing industry. Patrick, let's start by setting the stage for the 1990 primary election this book is about. Who were the candidates and why was this state legislative race on the national radar back then?

Patrick Wohl (01:04.278)
Well, this is a campaign not unlike the thousands of races that happen across the country on the state legislative level, where most people wouldn't know who these people are. But this story is illustrative of those people and those races that don't get a lot of attention. And both women are longtime legislators in the Northwest suburbs. Penny Pollan, who was the, I would say, more conservative candidate in this race.

and Rosemary Mulligan, who was the more moderate candidate in the race, were virtually unknown in the 1990s. In Illinois, Penny Poland was known as a longtime legislator. She was elected in 1976 at the age of 29. She was very conservative, like I said, very deeply religious, someone particularly motivated by social issues.

The 80s, she was one of the primary opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois. And you'd find her face in advertisements and at rallies and things, posing that alongside people like Phyllis Schlafly, who called her one of her dearest friends, and Reverend Jerry Falwell. So sort of the very, I would say, prototypical evangelical Republican we talk about today. And Rosemary Mulligan was on the other end of the spectrum. And she was a...

Eric Wilson (02:05.823)

Patrick Wohl (02:30.366)
more sort of chamber of commerce, Republican, if you will, more socially moderate, maybe socially liberal, who was driven to run against the incumbent at that time, Penny Poland, in 1990. And it was a race that was, at the beginning, not very remarkable. You had a candidate challenging someone who'd been in office for a long time.

But there was a Supreme Court decision that came down in 1989 called Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. And at the time people thought that this was maybe one of the first opportunities that the court would use to overturn Roe v. Wade. You had a changing bench with new appointments. You had a changing political landscape. And so there are a lot of parallels to that today. And while the court didn't do that, they came down with a decision that essentially allowed legislators.

Eric Wilson (03:09.852)

Patrick Wohl (03:23.658)
in the states more leeway to regulate abortion. And so what happened is, Penny Poland introduced a bill in the Illinois General Assembly, Rosemary Milligan decided to challenge her. And this was the first campaign after the Supreme Court's decision because the Illinois primary is so early in March. And so both sides were trying to prove a point. The pro-life side was backing Penny Poland with lots of outside money being poured into this little legislative race.

Eric Wilson (03:43.037)

Patrick Wohl (03:53.706)
And the pro-choice side was bolstering Rosemary Mulligan, who sort of came out of nowhere in this. You had national groups like NARAL on the pro-choice side, groups like the National Right to Life and state-based groups on the other side, and lots of national figures who took interest in this race. You had Henry Hyde, who was the congressman from Illinois, who's the namesake of the Hyde Amendment, whose district actually overlapped with this one, who...

Eric Wilson (04:17.203)

Patrick Wohl (04:22.766)
got involved and people like the owners of the Chicago Bearers, the McCasky family, and even at one point in the book, Hillary Clinton, who was a high school classmate of one of the women. So this really became a national story because of all sorts of twists and turns. But like I said, they're sort of, I would say, representative of these two women of two factions of both the Republican Party and just our politics at large that still

Eric Wilson (04:35.22)

Patrick Wohl (04:51.915)
Obviously go at it today.

Eric Wilson (04:53.659)
All right, so who won?

Patrick Wohl (04:56.51)
Well, Eric, that's a more complicated answer than...

Eric Wilson (05:00.307)
It's not a clear answer.

Patrick Wohl (05:02.726)
No, and not because I'm being cagey or anything like that, but because it was a roller coaster campaign. And on election night in the March primary, and again, this was a Republican primary in 1990, on election night, Rosemary Mulligan, the pro-choice candidate, was ahead by 31 votes.

At that time, they had, they thought they had won. It was all over the national news. The next day Diane Sawyer was talking about it at this, as this big litmus test on the issue, but they discovered a double count in one of the precincts, which is, you know, it's, that's the sort of thing that does happen in elections. But usually it, it either doesn't matter because it's just not very close or it, or quickly gets resolved. But a recount ensued.

And it was a seesaw back and forth for a couple of months. There was both sides had to hire lawyers to basically go in a warehouse and argue over which balance they'd set aside and then bring before a judge. And it was all over the issue of dimpled chads. And in 1990, this was not a term that people knew about. This is pre Bush figure, which we can, we can talk more about.

But it all centered on which balance to count. And so they argued before a judge. It eventually was tied. And in the event of a tie, it's pretty simple. You know, the recount process is complicated. There's lawyers involved. There's all sorts of legal maneuvering. There's lots of money spent. But in the event of a tie, they flipped a coin. And...

Rosemary Mulligan called tails the pro-choice candidate. She won. And it was an exciting moment again that thrust them into the spotlight. Ultimately, it was kind of a formality, because it just, in a recount case, decides who's going to appeal generally. And eventually, in September of 1990, the Illinois Supreme Court had ruled, based on these various dimpled chads and things like that, that Penny Polin had won by just

Patrick Wohl (07:21.659)
seven votes. So very much a see-saw election because of that issues and it was one of the first cases that really talked about that issue of dimple shards like I mentioned.

Eric Wilson (07:32.923)
Yeah, so obviously just by name alone, most politicos won't be familiar with the Pullen v Mulligan case, but the moment you say the words dimpled Chad's, we get a hint about why we're still talking about this and it comes back to the 2000 Bush v Gore recount. So who dug this back up in 2000? So obviously 10 years difference, different state.

how did this come to be a part of that Bush v Gore decision?

Patrick Wohl (08:04.254)
Well, both sides were obviously at a very heated recount of their own in 2000. And so both sides actually brought it up at some point to argue for, they both said it stood for one thing or the other. The Bush team said it stood for the notion that Dimple Chad shouldn't be counted. And the Gore team in particular used it to say that they should be counted. And this was

became a whole side story in Bush v. Gore because the Gore team found it in a Chicago Tribune article talking about this case. And the article said at the time that the Illinois Supreme Court said definitively, you always count double chads. That's what they did. And so they brought that standard to Florida and said, hey, look, another state had dealt with this. And while a state court ruling from another, from a non Florida court couldn't bind them,

provides a persuasive reason for why they should. And the problem was that the article actually misrepresented what the holding was. The court in Illinois did not say that they should be counted in all cases. It just said to the extent you can determine voters' intent, then you can count it, which is very, very different. And so this became a sideshow because the Bush lawyers,

Eric Wilson (09:11.464)
Ha ha!

Patrick Wohl (09:30.302)
eventually filed a complaint against David Boyce, who was the lead gore attorney. A lot of people know him because he was very prominent in the Microsoft antitrust suits. He was Elizabeth Holmes lawyer for Theranos recently. So he's a very well-known litigator, but they tried to file complaints against him saying, he was misrepresenting this case. But the problem was it actually did result in.

using the polling case and other state cases, did result in votes being counted in some counties for gore based on that standard. And so that became important later on because when this eventually reached the Supreme Court and they were arguing over this issue, we all know what happened in the end. The court ruled in favor of then Texas Governor Bush. And the reason they gave for

uh, for ruling in his favor for saying there was an equal protection violation and stopping the count was because there were all of these uneven standards in counties across the state, some were counting dimples, some were not. And it was because confusion over cases like this. So the next time someone tells you local politics is, you know, uninteresting or inconsequential, you can just point them to this case.

Eric Wilson (10:48.831)
I'm going to go ahead and turn it off.

Eric Wilson (10:53.831)
Well, it's a fascinating story, lots of ups and downs. So what became of Penny Pullen and Rosemary Mulligan? What did they think of their recount battle shaping the outcome of that 2000 presidential election?

Patrick Wohl (11:08.554)
Well, it's interesting because the lawyers who worked on these cases, the polling lawyer who worked for the more conservative candidate ended up working for the Gore team during this helping with the recount and then the Mulligan lawyer who represented the more moderate or liberal candidate worked for the Bush team. So it sort of goes to show you that in a recount.

Eric Wilson (11:23.007)

Eric Wilson (11:34.311)
I think this says a lot about lawyers. I'm not gonna say what I think it says about them, but that's an interesting point of trivia.

Patrick Wohl (11:37.094)
Yes. Well, and in many ways, it's it's.

Patrick Wohl (11:45.438)
Well, as if as someone who will who will after I take the bar in a couple of months be a lawyer, I'll defend the profession for a second here. I think it's interesting because there's so many issues in law that are even split ideologically, you know, constitutional law, you have an argument over the living constitution or originalism or in, you know, a suit over

workers' comp, how much money you should give is split inside. But this is really just sort of you argue what you argue at the time based on what's happened and what favors you. So it really the recount issues, no, no political home, which I think is a unique, unique piece. But as for as for what happened with both these women, again, this goes to them sort of representing different ends of the political spectrum in our country. Rosemary Mulligan.

Eric Wilson (12:31.251)

Patrick Wohl (12:44.374)
um, eventually won a rematch in 1992 and then became a long-time legislator in the northwest suburbs, um republican legislator and She was a very strong advocate um, you know on the budget in illinois and on health care and uh became someone who definitely bucked the party on a lot of social issues she, you know cast one of the tie-breaking votes for

Civil unions for same-sex couples, and obviously was very passionate pro-choice advocate. So those were some of her causes, but was also someone who was in the news sometimes. She was well known for calling Rob Ogolovic on a hot mic a blithering idiot, which the Chicago press enjoyed. And on the other end, Poland.

Eric Wilson (13:31.77)
I'm gonna go.

Patrick Wohl (13:37.55)
Rosemary Mulligan has since passed away, but Penny Pullen is still around. She's still active. She actually recently moved to Michigan. She ran the Illinois Family Institute, which is a socially conservative advocacy group in the state. And she runs a pro-life nonprofit now. She's been on all sorts of boards, the Council on National Policy. She was one of the founding members actually in the early days of the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.

Uh, and sat on all sorts of boards with, with people like Jenny Thomas and Phyllis Schlafly and Tom Fitton and Morton Blackwell, who founded the Leadership Institute. So very interesting just because I think she sort of represents the, uh, activists or legislator who works a lot behind the scenes, um, but doesn't necessarily get or seek out, uh, the credit for a lot of the work she does behind the scenes.

Eric Wilson (14:30.815)
Yeah, you're listening to the Business of Politics show. I'm speaking with Patrick Wool, author of Down Ballot, How a Local Campaign Became a National Referendum on Abortion. Patrick, I want to shift gears now because writing a book isn't the usual career path for someone in our industry. What motivated you to become an author?

Patrick Wohl (14:52.606)
Well, I had always known about this story and really what motivated me to become an author was that nobody had written about this story before. And I thought it was so interesting as a campaign junkie. And, you know, I've worked in on campaigns in the state, the local level, you know, governor's races, presidential campaign. And

There are all sorts of books and movies and podcasts and things about presidential races or high profile campaigns for governor. But, um, I love local politics and there really is a gap in political books. There's no very few, if, if not no political, um, books about, you know, local campaigns that tell a story, not an analysis, but a narrative story that. Kind of, um,

Eric Wilson (15:45.438)

Patrick Wohl (15:47.802)
shows people what it's like to work on a political campaign. And so I got to blend that my political experience and try to bring people behind the scenes of what it's like to work from, you know, ballot access and candidate call time and election night war rooms and how a recount works and sort of put my experience through of working in politics in the book in that sense and melding it with all the interviews I did.

with the people who worked on these campaigns. So, you know, ultimately this is, it's not a political book. Obviously it talks about politics, but it tells the story based on all the research I did and interviews with people. So that was an interesting part of this is just trying to tell the story without necessarily expressing political views or anything like that.

Eric Wilson (16:24.095)

Eric Wilson (16:37.987)
Yeah, it's a great story and it really feels like a visit to a foreign country. You know, the way campaigns were run in the 1990s, the fact that you had a pro choice Republican being competitive and you have Republicans representing the suburbs of Chicago. I mean, it is a, it's kind of a foreign country to us now. So it's a great story. I'm glad you brought it to life.

What are the new skills that you had to learn or hone to see this project through?

Patrick Wohl (17:11.682)
That's a great question. And I think I would point to sort of what I just mentioned, too, is turning off your political hat in a way. You know, I certainly have my own views on all sorts of issues. And I worked in politics before. But really trying to be objective and just not deliver opinions or anything like that or express viewpoints, but just tell the story of what happened. And so I think.

That was one skill I had to develop. And then I would say also getting people to talk to you was an interesting experience because people either thought I was, when I called them to talk, they either thought I was too liberal or too conservative or, you know, everyone thought no matter what their politics were that I was going to write something horrible about them. So you really have to smooth people over and

Eric Wilson (18:03.743)

Patrick Wohl (18:07.894)
convince them to talk to you and convince them that, yes, oh, passions were certainly high. But I will say too, passions were high, but also a lot of the people I talk to are now in their 80s and 90s who worked on the campaign. So they also, that, well, sometimes, but I was surprised by some people, like I spoke to the judge who worked in this case. And

Eric Wilson (18:10.136)
even after all those years.

Eric Wilson (18:25.351)
memories weren't what they used to be.

Patrick Wohl (18:33.73)
people were wildly blunt with their assessments of people, which made it a lot of fun because they didn't care. They just said how they really thought them. So people weren't holding back, which I appreciated.

Eric Wilson (18:47.603)
That's funny, it's kind of like you're their confessor. After all these years, let it get off their chest. So give us a rundown of how the book publishing industry works, it's a fascinating business, it's obviously going through a lot of changes because of technology and self-publishing and things like that. Just give us the kind of overview, because we've got people who like to learn about business here on the show. Take us behind the scenes, like, you know,

Patrick Wohl (18:50.927)

Eric Wilson (19:17.087)

Patrick Wohl (19:18.274)
Well, it certainly is changing a lot. And there are, there's obviously two routes. There's self-publishing, which has become a much more, a wider and realistic and available avenue for a lot of people, certainly, especially with Amazon and all sorts of companies that make it much more easy now. And there, but there certainly are, there's the other route, which is just traditional publishing in...

That's what I set out to do and it can be just kind of difficult going through all the whole process. It's a lot of waiting and it's very, especially for a first time author, a lot of waiting. You have to write a proposal, pitch agents, get an agent and then have them pitch publishers, which can be a whole process. And

You know, Washington, D.C. in particular is very interesting because there are a lot of books, and state capitals across the country too. There's stories about politics throughout the country. You saw in the Trump administration a lot of staffer books, which sold really well. The Trump administration was great for publishing.

Eric Wilson (20:27.394)

Eric Wilson (20:34.271)
Stimulus, yeah.

Patrick Wohl (20:38.158)
You see lots of politicians who write books, obviously, and memoirs. And those tend to be different. When you're one of those folks, generally you're probably hiring a ghostwriter. You're not doing it yourself. And so you'll put together a proposal with some sample chapters, maybe some blurbs, get your agent and then shop it around to different publishing houses. And so you don't actually have to write a full book.

Which is which is was an interesting revelation for me but I'm not I'm not a You know famous name or anything like that. And yes, exactly No stunt doubles. So yeah, I had to write the book. So wrote it first because This is this is a nonfiction book. That's almost it's written more like a fiction book. It's a narrative and so Yeah, I had to had to write that pitch agents

Eric Wilson (21:17.691)
You did your own stunts on this one.

Patrick Wohl (21:37.026)
probably pitched, you know, 100 people before I actually had some options, but.

Eric Wilson (21:43.795)
but you've done voter contact, so you were not deterred or discouraged.

Patrick Wohl (21:46.73)
I mean, it's funny you say that honestly is being told no is such a valuable lesson in, in that you can take away from politics because you will be told no so many times in, in writing a book. And and I'm yes. So that that's a certainly valuable lesson. But DC is really interesting because a lot of the my agent is in New York and she's wonderful. There are there are some.

really killer agencies in DC to that do really interesting, great work and do a lot of the big books that you see on bookshelves. Bob Barnett at Williams and Connolly is kind of the, he's like the go-to political book guy has done everyone from George Bush to Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney. I mean, he does like every big book. And there's

Ross Yoon, which is another huge big agency and DC does a lot of political books a lot of politicians and they were actually recently acquired by WME the big Hollywood agency and job

Eric Wilson (23:01.351)
Yeah, it's a, oh sorry, go ahead.

Patrick Wohl (23:04.798)
No, I was gonna say one last one. There's another big DC one that they do a lot of huge political books is Javelin, which is actually two former Bush staffers and they do a lot of creative work. So yeah, it's an interesting ecosystem in DC because most things are in New York, but there's certainly fierce competition in Washington.

Patrick Wohl (23:29.49)
for a lot of those political books you see in the news.

Eric Wilson (23:33.871)
Yeah, it's a, it's an interesting business that still has a lot of gatekeepers, right? And, and you've got to know the, the right people. And, uh, obviously the, the shelves on bookstores and, and the, our, our limited resources. So, uh, it's a fascinating, uh, look behind the curtain there. So to, to wrap up, Patrick, what can we learn today from the perspective that you gained by looking?

back at a local election that took place 34 years ago.

Patrick Wohl (24:09.462)
Well, there's, there's a lot of lessons to take away from this campaign. Um, I think one of the most interesting ones, uh, most interesting revelations for me was just how much recounts have changed, uh, and the technology that we vote on has changed. You know, we don't use punch card ballots anymore. That was phased out a couple of years after a Bush v Gore took a little while, but

The last two counties to use these punch card ballots, which were confusing for people and cause all sorts of issues was in 2014. So that's been cut down on. And so the way we vote has changed a lot, certainly. It's still paper. Something like 95% of voters vote on some sort of paper, whether it's them market themselves or through a machine, but no more punch cards.

Eric Wilson (24:44.772)
Oh wow.

Patrick Wohl (25:04.41)
But I think there's a lot to be said about, you know, for a lot of your listeners, just how much more they can influence local campaigns because there's so much less attention being paid on local races, you know, county board or Alderman, city council, state rep. And I think that's kind of an opportunity for a lot of political professionals because paid media is, it's just only becoming more important than ever. You know, Facebook, Instagram.

OTT, direct mail. Like there are no other sources for people to get their information on local politics. So, you know, you're the ones to fill the gap, which is a huge opportunity for people working on campaigns. And then I would say the last thing is just sort of a tried and true lesson about involvement in local politics. I think people ought to be more involved.

You know, 80% of Americans can't name a single state legislator of theirs. Uh, one in three, one in three Americans can't even name their own governor. And, uh, so I think the biggest lesson in this is that, you know, most issues today that we're talking about, uh, are decided in state capitals, not in Washington. And on, on every issue that Americans care, care about, there's, there's a penny pollen and there's a Rosemary Mulligan.

Eric Wilson (26:20.68)

Patrick Wohl (26:29.698)
and they're watching closely, but the question is who's watching them?

Eric Wilson (26:34.747)
Yeah. Well, my thanks to Patrick Wohl for a great conversation. Check out the link to his book, uh, in our show notes. Uh, definitely give it a read for a fascinating look in, in a very, until now, not well known piece of, of American campaign history. If this episode made you a little bit smarter or gave you something to think about, all we ask is that you share.

it with a friend or colleague. You look smarter in the process. People find out about the show. It's a win-win all around. Remember to subscribe to the Business of Politics show wherever you listen to podcasts. So you never miss an episode. You can also sign up for updates on our website at busi With that, I'll say thanks for listening. See you next time.

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